Lately, there is a veritable fad among international relations experts to resort to what is called counterfactual history. The latter is based on the answer to the question: what would have happened if? In other words, it is imagined/speculated what developments could have occurred if, for instance, Brutus hadn’t killed Caesar, what direction Europe and the world would have taken if the French revolution of 1789 or the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 hadn’t occurred, or if Hitler hadn’t come to power in Germany in 1933. The speculation depends on the imagination of the narrative’s author, on his historical knowledge and sense, on his capacity to properly understand the great evolution trends that a large-scale event changed for good or even replaced with others, which imprinted a different paradigm on the long-term evolution.
Of course, there can be no proof that what is being imagined/speculated would have become a reality (the term of reference, namely this reality, is missing). History is so complex, the evolution of the trends that define entire historical eras registers accelerations, slowdowns or even sometimes inexplicable disappearances, and the so-called game changers (unforeseen events, natural catastrophes etc.) can open historical chapters that are entirely different from those previously deemed certain and solid. As an intellectual exercise, counterfactual history is attractive for those with a passion for the past, even useful, among others because it proves the remarkable complexity of humanity’s evolution, it undeniably helps to outline some of its points of reference and can clarify the positive or negative aspects of a certain historical course.
Macron’s victory in the French presidential runoff is such an event, also assessed under the aegis of counterfactual history. Had Le Pen won – it is said – then Europe and the world would have taken a different course, apocalyptical hues not being absent in the speculations made on this counterfactual hypothesis, such as the disappearance of the EU, Europe falling into chaos, the victory of populism urbi et orbi etc.
For instance, G. Rachman, the international relations expert of the prestigious ‘The Financial Times,’ wrote on his Twitter account the day after Macron’s victory that it is “certainly true that the success or failure of the new president will matter well beyond France — and even well beyond Europe. If Mr Macron succeeds, the forces of nationalism and political extremism — represented in France by his defeated opponent, Marine Le Pen — will suffer a setback around the world. But if he fails, populism, nationalism and protectionism will soon be resurgent.” In fact, his tweet is the very ‘core’ of the idea of an editorial published in the newspaper on the same day. In this case, we are dealing with a different use of the counterfactual history procedure. Namely, what would be the consequences of the fact that a historical event that has occurred – Macron’s victory – will not answer the expectations generated by its occurrence. In other words, a procedure somewhat different than the usual one – in this case: what would have happened had Le Pen won the presidential elections? – hence, in the editorialist’s variant: what are the consequence of a failure on the part of the new president?
As known, centrist E. Macron’s victory in the presidential elections was assured by a platform based on the consolidation of the European Union – through the strengthening of the Franco-German engine –, in the face of contender Marie Le Pen for whom the abandoning of the euro, probably the coup de grace for continental integrity, was a central point. The crumbling of the EU is assessed as being the end of a construct attempted for 60 years, in a first for the international system of states, seeking to overcome the immobility and the dangers of the Westphalian system – hegemonic war first of all. So far, this target can be considered attained.
The crises the European Union has gone through in the last year – Brexit, Trump’s election and his attitude toward the European organisation, the stampede of immigrants from the South and the member states’ differing stances on this phenomenon, the rise of illiberal, populist political orientations – are putting in balance the continuity of this historic process of integration that has maintained peace on the Old Continent for well over two generations. However, Gideon Rachman questions the presumption that Macron’s victory could change the already outlined trend toward the dissolution of the EU. He goes on to write that “while Mr Macron can savour a crushing victory over Ms Le Pen, he also knows that 35 per cent of French voters have just voted for a far-right candidate. The cumulative vote for extremists of the far left and the far right in the first round of the presidential election was closer to 50 per cent. That means that almost half of French voters want to smash ‘the system.’” The expert’s last statement seems to be proven by a simple arithmetic of last Sunday’s French elections. The newspaper’s readers themselves made the calculus. One of them confirmed the expert’s analysis: “If I look at the vote chart in FT, I see Macron 65% and Le Pen 35%. But if I look at Macron vs. (Le Pen + abstentions), it is more like 50% to 50%. What this says to me is: (1) Macron doesn’t have a mandate. He has 50% of the people against him. (2) The support of the Euro in France is not 65% but closer to 50%.” Another reader however challenged the calculus and the conclusion, adopting a different perspective: “Le Pen’s 35% (actually 34%) was a share of valid votes cast, not of the total electorate. If you mix in the 4.2 million people who abstained and the 12% of blank votes, Le Pen’s share of the total electorate was, I calculate, 27%. That means that whatever their political stripe, 73% of French voters couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the FN. But yes, Macron has a tough row to hoe. But who knows? Maybe he’ll succeed.” From an arithmetical standpoint, it would seem that the premise on which Gideon Rachman’s analysis is based is consequently excessively tainted, the consequences imagined being somewhat apocalyptical.
Namely, the fear that in July’s parliamentary elections E. Macron will not succeed in garnering legislative support for the reforms needed to rebuild the EU’s second-largest economy, hence to consolidate European integrity, because of the presumed orientation of around half the electorate (that allegedly did not like the current president), is exaggerated. The same goes for the fear that Germany will not be able to assume the risk of continental reinvigoration through the restoration of the Franco-German engine because of the excessive cost of propping France’s economy and more. In the same scale, the expert points out that the UK has an interest in E. Macron’s efforts succeeding – on his blog, Lindley French recently wrote that: “Listening to some of Macron’s fierce anti-British rhetoric during the campaign one could be forgiven for thinking Britain might face another battle thereof; 1066 and all that!” because self-confident France would allegedly no longer see Brexit as a “mortal threat” for the EU. Of course, the premise used represents the basis of advice for the French president; standing out among the pieces of advice is the appointment of a premier that represents the right wing, as a way of avoiding a poor result in the legislative elections of July 2017 and of ensuring parliamentary backing for social reforms that are so urgent in France.
All of the above shows the pitfalls – but also the benefits – of using counterfactual history. Maybe Rachman’s opinion that – because of the (maybe erroneous) arithmetical calculus of the French voters’ choice on 7 May – Macron is “an accidental president whose victory was achieved partly because the traditional centre-right and centre-left parties chose unelectable candidates, hamstrung either by extremism or by personal scandal,” is exaggerated.
But speculation on the counterfactual history formula undeniably has its benefits, acting, through the conclusions generated, as a warning in the face of an uncertain and risky future. This means in Europe and the world the rise of populism and radicalism in the global political landscape, channelling the world toward economic protectionism and political fragmentation.